Of course, the dazzling La La Land is a film that many of you have most likely already seen. Its array of beautiful colors and stellar acting by the spectacular Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, supplemented with a gorgeous soundtrack spawning a blend of classic jazz with contemporary notes make for an award-buzzing piece of art that has grossed over $232 million and won over the hearts of millions of people.
It’s important to note that La La Land has actually been in the works for nearly a decade now. Director Damien Chazelle’s strong affinity for musical films led him to write the screenplay for La La Land when he was a student at Harvard University in 2010. He wrote the script as his senior thesis and after graduating, moved to Los Angeles and continued writing and modifying the script. For years, no studio was willing to finance his film, claiming that it was not a “familiar” storyline and would not appeal to people. After Chizelle wrote the successful Whiplash in 2014, he finally attracted several studios and was able to start making the film, over five years after he wrote the script.
It’s interesting to note the resistance by studios to invest in this film, with the primary reason being that jazz musicals are too archaic for the youth – one theme explored in La La Land itself. The notion that past traditions do not appeal to modern generations is one that La La Land very much challenges: we haven’t seen a musical film in a long time, with the main assumption being that it’s just died out, but the very fact that it has been gone for so long is the catalyst for its popularity. La La Land draws from older films a nostalgic sense. It’s reminiscent of a different time that is real, making for a film that’s easy to lose ourselves in. The distinction, though, that sets La La Land apart from other films that adopt this same mechanism is while it incorporates older elements, it retains a modern feeling that keeps each scene fresh. The dance numbers aren’t flawlessly planned to perfection. Ryan and Emma’s voices are not Broadway-groomed and making our ears swoon. Their characters are flawed in numerous ways. They behave selfishly at times. This creates a much more real film, with the flaws and unpolished dance numbers creating a feeling of uniqueness.
Emma Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress working as a barista at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, serving lattes in between auditions. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz pianist making his living by playing cocktail party gigs with dreams of opening his own club. Two aspiring dreamers, full of passion yet so far have been unsuccessful. They meet. They’re attracted to each other’s ideal visions. They fall in love. It’s the ultimate love story. It’s the typical love story.
Yet, the movie defies the stereotypical clichés of a romantic plotline, and is in fact partly what constitutes its mass appeal. Their first interaction is Sebastian rudely pushing past Mia. When they seem to keep running into each other and Sebastian wonders if it means something, Mia states, “Probably not,” with them proceeding to sing about how they could never fall for each other. Their love story becomes more real, deeper, and more relatable to the audience.
The movie isn’t so much about their love story but more so about their artistic passion. Mia and Sebastian show how easy it is to get derailed from their dreams, and how sometimes it takes another person to push you back on the tracks to find it again. That’s what they do to each other. Mia has to remind Sebastian of his dream when he begins to play music he dislikes in a band, while Sebastian practically forces Mia to attend the audition. Ultimately, in their final scene together as a couple, Sebastian acknowledges that when Mia gets the audition, she will have to give it all she’s got. It’s his simple way of reflecting the harshness of reality: how pursuing your dreams requires sacrifice. Mia and Sebastian simply cannot be together for them to climb the ladders towards success. There have been dozens of films like this that try to capture the allure of Hollywood, yet cynically remark upon its cruel, harsh reality. However, Chazelle’s film is exceptional. He’s showing how getting plucked out of the crowd for a life-changing opportunity means that your life will chance and you will lose friends, loved ones, relationships, and other things that you hold dear. Yet he doesn’t try to criticize this. The film celebrates holding onto your convictions with rigidness, made clear in Mia’s audition song that pays homage to “the fools who dream, as foolish as they may seem.” This harsh reality is something we’ve all dealt with, which is what has caused so many to love La La Land because Chazelle doesn’t try to make us to feel bad about it. It’s simply the reality and we have to work with it.
The ending is jarring, seeing Mia with a husband and kid. Both have achieved their dreams, but the audience is met with shock and horror at the notion that Mia and Sebastian are not together. Ultimately, what sets the film even more apart is the beautiful epilogue that shows what life could have been like had Mia and Sebastian stayed together. I remember I found myself overcome with emotion, and quite frankly indignation. “Of course they could have stayed together! Mia should have filmed her movie and then come back and been with Sebastian. How could it not have worked out?” Yet the epilogue, I realize, is conveying something completely different. It’s not trying to show what could have happened. In fact, it’s not supposed to convey reality at all. There’s a reason the ending is so bright and colorful with uplifting, almost fantasy-like music. The ending is showing what would happen in an ideal world, a world in which everything works out perfectly: Mia and Sebastian attract everyone with their passions, land to success without an issue, have no fights, are able to live and work together in harmony.
The ending makes it clear: Although the couple spends most of the movie together, the movie never really belonged to their love story. La La Land is fashioned after Old Hollywood musicals, most of which pair guys and girls off in the perfect way. Often times in those movies, the couple doesn’t achieve their ambitions but what is important is that they are still together, making the audience happy. Yet La La Land underscores that the movie is not about Mia and Sebastian’s romance; rather, it’s about the shimmer of their dreams. The movie ending is in fact a happy one because they have accomplished their dreams. It’s fine that they don’t end up together, as made when they smile and nod at each other, having acknowledged each other’s success and happiness. The risky take of La La Land is that it asks its audience to understand that a happy ending doesn’t require its leads to still be in love. Sebastian and Mia live two parallel love stories: She has movies and he has jazz. They both end up with what they wanted in the end, ultimately with their own real loves. The movie lets the main characters essentially be selfish, but quietly. The movie tried to build up to this point, constantly hinting that they don’t belong together; they’re dazzling when they dance but not much else, often guilting each other into being more ambitious. The stunning epilogue in which Sebastian dreams his idealized life with Mia leaves his own life incomplete: he’s still without his jazz club, so the both of them could not have had it all together. It’s only in real life when Mia returns her taste in dark-haired, serious men (her husband looks awfully similar to the guy she was dating in the beginning - did anyone notice that?) that she can have everything she wants.
It’s questionable. Are they selfish? Should they have stayed together regardless of only achieving moderate success? Was their love really enough to overcome their own personal desires? The conclusion of La La Land seems sad, but it reflects people in real life and their real ambitions and dreams, and the compromises we have to make. Sebastian sums it up perfectly when describing jazz to Mia: “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting.” That is essentially life, relationships, love - just about everything. The conclusion seems sad. But it’s real. And that’s what’s made this film so unique. It’s beautiful with a lovely soundtrack, great acting, and all the other traits of a fantastic film – but it’s ultimately its harrowing message of reality that people don’t like to hear that makes the film all the more rare and striking.
Written by Sarah Smati ('20)
Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.